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Monday, June 17, 2013

Common Core Literature Standard 4

The first three Reading: Literature standards fall under the category "Key Ideas and Details." Standard 4 begins the section entitled "Craft and Structure." This standard specifically focuses on vocabulary and word choice.

CCRA.R.4 - Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Let's look at the corresponding third, fourth, and fifth grade literature standards to see what's required.

RL.3.4 - Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral.

RL.4.4 - Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g. Herculean).

RL.5.4 - Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.

The first strand of all three standards directs us to work on words in context. In my classroom, we really hit this skill hard when we read Hatchet. Each year I am amazed by how difficult it is for my advanced fourth graders to zero in on the correct definition for a word in context. Here are a few examples:

"...and drone of the engine had been all that was left."
____ n. a male bee
____ n. a pilotless airplane
____ n. a humming sound

Now I can understand why some students (especially if they don't go back into the text to see more of the context) might choose "a pilotless airplane." After all, the pilot has just died, leaving Brian alone. But I have had students choose "a male bee." What?

"Or he could pull the throttle out and make it go down now."
____ v. to choke
____ n. throat
____ n. valve for controlling fuel

This exercise demonstrates the importance of not only knowing parts of speech but also understanding how they are used in sentences. "Choke" can be synonymous with "throttle" here, but the word "the" in the sentence indicates that "throttle" is a noun. Then, of course, the students also need to be trained to plug the definition into the sentence in place of the word and see if it works.

What strikes me about the Common Core State Standards most is that there's never any "quick and easy" answer. The first three Reading: Literature standards require students to look back, organize, and do quite a bit of writing. Standard 4 requires thinking. Man, is that ever painful for kids! They want quick and easy so badly! One way I have combatted this is to give time off for good behavior. 100% on a tricky vocabulary sheet like this can earn a homework pass. I figure that 100% thorough 50% of the time is better than 50% thorough 100% of the time.

So what about the second strand of each of the standards listed above?

Third Grade - Students must discriminate between literal and nonliteral. If this skill is repeated over and over throughout the year, it will set the students up for better comprehension. I can already hear third grade teachers all over the country chanting, "Is this literal or figurative?" and "What is meant by it?"

Fourth Grade - I teach fourth grade, and I'm still scratching my head on this one. I could have understood if the folks who created the CCSS required fourth graders to use Greek and Latin word parts to unlock word meanings, but "allude to significant characters found in mythology"???  Okay, if you say so. Here are a few ways I'm squeezing it into my curriculum:
  1. When reading Ella Enchanted, discuss adjectives that refer to well-known fairy tale characters found in the book (gigantic, elfin, dwarf or dwarfish, ogreish).
  2. Read Greek mythology and/or The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians series); discuss characters from Greek mythology and adjective forms of their names (herculean, mercurial, titanic).
  3. Explicitly teach English words that come from Greek mythology. (I found the list below at and thank the unknown author!)

Fifth Grade - Time to teach similes and metaphors! May I suggest two books loaded with figurative language? Since I live in the Great Lakes region, a favorite picture book is Paddle-to-the-Sea (1942 Caldecott Honor Book). Another little-known gem is The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which won the Newbery Award in 1931.

Before closing today, I want to share the most awesome resource I found online today. It's chock-full of Common Core related reading activities for Grades 4 and 5! These resources can be used for just about any story or book. Many thanks to the Florida Center for Reading Research for publishing such a great tool!

How do you emphasize vocabulary in context in your classroom? Do you have some ideas for helping students distinguish between literal and nonliteral phrases? How about ways to incorporate words related to Greek mythology or books with great figurative language? We'd all love to hear about it! Please share your comments.

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